[MUSIC PLAYING] BRUCE GANEM: Hello, and welcome to the Oral History Project at Cornell. I'm Bruce Ganem, Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell. It's my privilege to be here today, October 15, 2011 with my colleague and friend Jerrold Meinwald, a Goldwin Smith Emeritus Professor of Chemistry.
I'm hoping our conversation this morning will touch on many of the highlights of Jerry's long and distinguished career here at Cornell, and teaching, and research. That career began almost 60 years ago--
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right.
BRUCE GANEM: --at the end of this year. And I've known Jerry for a long part of that time, almost 40 years. So it's a particular pleasure to reminisce with him on the record, as it were, about the many contributions he's made to chemistry and to Cornell.
As most of you know, Professor Meinwald is an internationally known and distinguished organic chemist whose achievements have been recognized by many awards. He's a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Sciences, as well as the-- the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I should say, and the American Philosophical Society. In addition, he is one of the co-founders, along with the late Professor Tom Eisner, of the modern field of chemical ecology, which as we all know is the study of how chemicals mediate interactions between living organisms.
Good morning, Jerry.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Good morning.
BRUCE GANEM: It's a great pleasure to be here with you, and I'm hoping we can start our conversation early on with some background to your childhood and family life in New York.
JERROLD MEINWALD: OK. Yeah. My interest in chemistry actually goes all the way back to my boyhood. And I had a friend Michael Cava when we would get together during summers on the beach. Michael Cava's father was a physician, and hidden in his office there were biochemistry books and chemistry books from his student days. And Michael somehow got interested in those, and then got me interested in those. And would say things, look, you can make these wonderful red crystals out of blood, and isn't that remarkable?
So we would lie around on the beach and talk about the role of chemistry in life. And that finally led to us starting to do some chemistry just for the fun of it. And not with commercial chemistry sets, but with things we could buy from drugstores or supply houses. And we graduated quickly from biochemistry to fireworks.
BRUCE GANEM: It's amazing you could buy stuff like that in stores at the time.
JERROLD MEINWALD: At that time, children could buy anything that they had the money for.
BRUCE GANEM: So you would go out on the beach and construct elaborate fireworks and set them off.
JERROLD MEINWALD: We would construct fireworks, and we would charge the neighbors five cents each, and we would put on firework shows in the evening, and they were quite exciting.
BRUCE GANEM: What a great companion. Of course, Mike went on to become a terrific organic chemist in his own right, and here you two were in the very beginnings of your career as friends.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Indeed. And we got excited about it and stayed excited the rest of our lives.
BRUCE GANEM: So this was early on as high school students, even grade school students?
JERROLD MEINWALD: I think we were probably in junior high at that time. It was well before high school. And it's interesting. So we graduated to the stage of-- we both grew up in New York City-- of using the great 42nd Street Public Library where we would go on Saturdays with our notebooks, hand copy procedures for synthesizing dyes. We learned at an early stage that we need to learn German, because a lot of that literature--
BRUCE GANEM: Was early German chemistry.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --it's in German. And that was a very good motivation. Actually, when I finally came to Cornell, I noticed that Cornell required chemistry majors to take German. That has changed enormously since that time.
BRUCE GANEM: Well, we all had to study German as graduate students, certainly, if not sooner.
So there you were in New York, and it came time to move on to college. You and Mike parted ways at that time.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yes. So Mike went off to Harvard. I didn't get into Harvard. So I went off to Brooklyn College and started studying there, and then the family moved to Queens. I moved to Queens College. After a year and a half of that, I turned 18, and World War II was still going on.
So I was drafted, and managed to get myself into the Navy, which I was very eager to do because they had a program for training electronic technicians, and it seemed to me that would be a good activity. I couldn't imagine actually being in battle, but I could imagine doing electronics. Yeah. So Mike was going off-- was still in college. I spent a year and a half being in the Navy.
BRUCE GANEM: So this quick stint in electronics school, and then working around the states?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah, actually, the training was about nine months. And then I was on a hospital ship called The Constellation, and we sailed to Panama, and we sailed to Guantanamo, and we sailed to various interesting places. And then finally the war was over. I spent only 18 months. And when I came out, I transferred to University of Chicago.
BRUCE GANEM: Ah, there was the GI Bill, of course.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So there was the GI Bill. And the atmosphere in Chicago was different from the atmosphere in Queens College. It was a more cosmopolitan student body, very sophisticated faculty, and that was a great place to finish my undergraduate work.
BRUCE GANEM: So tell us who were the organic chemists at Chicago at the time?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Organic chemists at Chicago at the time were George Wheland, who had been a student of Linus Pauling and was an important person. Frank Westheimer was on the faculty.
BRUCE GANEM: He would have been quite young then, huh?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Would have been a young Frank Westheimer. Henry Taube was on the faculty, who spent a short time at Cornell, actually. It was a very lively faculty, and a wonderful place to be an undergrad.
BRUCE GANEM: So did undergraduates work on research projects then, and were you in anybody's lap?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Actually, I was not. Yeah. So I think maybe undergraduate research was not such a common part of the experience at that time. But I got very good advice. I remember talking with George Wheland about where to go to graduate school. And he said, well, if you want to sit in organic chemistry and synthesis, then probably you should consider Harvard and working with R.B. Woodward.
BRUCE GANEM: That was good advice.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That was good advice. And Mike Cava gave me the same advice, and I managed to do that. That was very exciting.
BRUCE GANEM: So you went off to Harvard in late '40s-- '48 maybe?
JERROLD MEINWALD: I went off to Harvard in 1948. Joined the Woodward research group almost immediately. And again, that with a quite different experience than being in Chicago, because the kind of chemistry that the faculty was interested in was different.
BRUCE GANEM: So Woodward himself would have also been a pretty young, obviously, very dynamic faculty member.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. Actually, we're just 10 years apart. I think Woodward was born in 1917, and I was born in '27. But he was a well-established figure by then because he got a very young start. So he had always synthesized quinine. He'd been on the cover of Life magazine and what not, and was the young star of the department.
BRUCE GANEM: So he must have had a pretty good sized research group.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And he probably had about 20 people working with him.
BRUCE GANEM: Postdocs and students?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Postdocs and students. Indeed, yeah.
BRUCE GANEM: So what was that like? Tell us about your project and what life was like in the Woodward group.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Life in the--
BRUCE GANEM: I'm sure there were--
JERROLD MEINWALD: --Woodward group was--
BRUCE GANEM: --many good people there.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --was very valuable and pleasant. Woodward was a great research director. It's interesting, he had two different directing styles. The directing style for his postdocs is he made them into small teams, two or three or four people with an ambitious objective. And he would consult with those researchers essentially every day. How did this reaction go? Has this thing crystallized? Show me what's going on.
BRUCE GANEM: Very detail-oriented then.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Very detailed direction. And he would come in maybe around 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, and go home about 11:00 or 12:00 at night. Put in a very, very-- started a little bit late, but a very, very long day. So that was working with the postdocs.
Working with the grad students was a quite different experience. We had individual projects. I was working on the synthesis of lysergic acid, which is the key central structural core of the ergot alkaloids. And students had individual projects. I didn't have a team. I was by myself.
Woodward had proposed how we might approach that synthesis. And essentially, he let students work on their own. You would try the next reaction, and if it works, you go and do the next step. If you were having troubles, go to his office and say, this isn't working out right. And then he would analyze what did happen, what are we going to do about it, how are we going to improve the conditions or change the strategy. And you'd go back all fired up.
Woodward could think of an infinite number of ideas, literally, to get around any problem. I remember going back to the postdocs. I had a very good friend, Franz Sondheimer who was working on total synthesis of cholesterol. And there was some stage-- It was just a simple Michaelization to acrylonitrile. And Franz would try it and it wouldn't work and they'd go talk about it and he'd try it again.
And Woodward got him to try at least 50 different approaches to that single reaction.
BRUCE GANEM: To the Michael reaction, yeah.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And it worked finally.
But most of us don't develop that tenacity. You try something five or six times, you don't have new ideas. To have new ideas for that long, and to convince your co-worker that this time it's going to work so let's just go do it was a remarkable feature of Woodward research direction.
BRUCE GANEM: So he could inspire you, right?
JERROLD MEINWALD: He really did inspire you.
BRUCE GANEM: Inspire you-- to keep trying things.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And the other thing is he knew the literature in a way that I don't think anybody knows the literature these days. So he could cite analogies and direct you to them without looking them up. You know, go look in the British Chemicals Journal, and I think it's 1952, and it might be page 823.
BRUCE GANEM: [LAUGH]
JERROLD MEINWALD: And then a paper by [INAUDIBLE]. And--
BRUCE GANEM: And there it would be.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --that had something useful for you, right? So you'd go to the library and literally, there it was.
BRUCE GANEM: To the page-- accurate to the page.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Just as he said.
So it's interesting, because on the one hand, that's inspiring. On the other hand, you do realize that however hard you work, you are not going to reach that level of intimacy with your subject. It's just-- it's beyond imagination.
BRUCE GANEM: But if you look at a constellation of people who succeeded from Woodward's group, it's clear that the inspiration was much more than any intimidation by his intellect. He had a way of motivating people, I guess.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yes, he really did. And clearly, he enjoyed the process, and he got you to enjoy the process. And also, he felt that he was absolutely in the forefront of the subject, and he got his co-workers to feel they are bringing forward organic chemistry.
BRUCE GANEM: So Jerry, you mentioned Franz Sondheimer. And I think Mike Cava was still when you were there.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah.
BRUCE GANEM: Give us a feeling who else was in the lab at the time. There must have been many other well-known organic chemists.
JERROLD MEINWALD: There were many well-known. Ernie Wenkert was there in the Woodward group. There were, of course, other distinguished research groups. So in Louie Fieser's group there was Koji Nakanishi. In Gilbert Stork's group there was Gene van Tamelen, [INAUDIBLE]. There were very, very good people in all of the groups. So the general atmosphere, especially for organic chemistry, was really lively.
BRUCE GANEM: And who were your closest friends and buddies, the people you would talk to about Michael reactions and other--
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yes, I think my closest--
BRUCE GANEM: --technical things?
JERROLD MEINWALD: --was Franz Sondheimer. We had adjacent lab desks, and we shared an interest in music. We would go to concerts together and whatnot. But mostly we spent pretty much the Woodwardian hours, and we came in a little bit late and worked into the night.
BRUCE GANEM: Yeah. We should talk a little bit about music, since it was a passion of yours since your early days in New York City. Mike Cava played an instrument?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Mike Cava actually played trombone, and Mike and I used to play duets in our early school days. We would play duets while the reaction mixes were refluxing. And that got a little more sophisticated. By the time I was at Harvard, I was studying flute with James Pappoutsakis who was the second flute in the Boston Symphony.
And then a subsequent year, my childhood hero whose name is Marcel Moyse who is the world's great flutist. Marcel Moyse was teaching flute in Boston one day a week, and I began studying flute with him. So actually, there was a time when I actually realized I was studying flute with the world's greatest flutist, and I was studying chemistry with--
BRUCE GANEM: The world's greatest organic chemist.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --who you could actually consider the world's greatest organic chemist. After that, everything is downhill.
But that was a wonderful time.
BRUCE GANEM: And you made time to do all these things somehow.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yes. Well, you know, again, I took the flute to the lab, and again, there were times when you had an hour and nothing much was doing and one could play flute. Yeah, I used to play flute and clarinet duets with a man called Frank Weisenborn who when on, I think became researcher at Squibb later on. And Weisenborn was a very good clarinetist, and we played a lot of music in off hours.
BRUCE GANEM: Did Sondheimer play anything?
JERROLD MEINWALD: No. Sondheimer--
BRUCE GANEM: He just enjoy listening.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --loved music and knew music very well, but didn't play.
BRUCE GANEM: So those were great times at Harvard.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Those were great times.
BRUCE GANEM: And then it became time to leave.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. So as I was sort of rolling along, working on lysergic acid, but not quite getting there, the senior organic chemist at Cornell, who was Jack Johnson, wrote to the chair of chemistry at Harvard, who was Paul D. Bartlett, and said, we have a faculty opening, and might there be somebody at Cornell who we could be looking at? And Bartlett passed this lecture around-- this letter around.
And Gilbert Stork, whose office was right next to my lab, came in one night and said, you know, Jerry, there's a job in Cornell, and you probably should apply for that. Which put me in a really strange position, because of course I was working with Woodward and not Gilbert. And finally I decided I would go approach Woodward, and I said, well, Professor Stork tells me there's an opening at Cornell, and would it make any sense for me to look into that.
And Woodward thought for a minute, said, yeah, that's a very nice idea. Why don't we write and see if that would work out. Which it ultimately did. If we condense that story, it did. And in fact, I hadn't even quite finished my thesis.
So I came here in January 1952, hadn't quite completed the synthesis, but one could write a thesis on what I had done. And that actually revealed something, also, about Woodward's attitude towards graduate training. And Woodward's feeling with postdocs was they are going to make cortisone, or they're going to make vitamin B-12.
His attitude with students is he's training them, and you pursue your problem, and when you come to the stage that you do an experiment that give results, you analyze the results, figure out what to do next and do it. When you can sort of do that cycle reliably, then you're ready to go.
BRUCE GANEM: So he taught you how to do research.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And so he taught-- That's right. So it was sort of the approach to how you do the problem. And he wasn't really expecting that every student would complete the target that they were aiming at.
In fact, I think if one analyzes Woodward publications, one will find that they're mostly with the postdoctoral students. They're sometime not with graduate students at all, who maybe didn't finish their lysergic acid, but they were ready to go in his eye, and he was happy to see them go off and start-- He thought it's more fun to start your independent career than to spend another two years to get that last step to work.
BRUCE GANEM: So I'm curious to know whether-- before we leave this subject-- whether much was known about the properties of lysergic acid when you were working on it.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, it was the time when LSD was just--
BRUCE GANEM: So it was known.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So it was known that-- The ergot alkaloids have bone fide pharmacological uses, and aside from that, they were the business of hallucinogenic drugs and whatnot. Yeah. That was all known. Woodward tended to pick targets that would bring renown to the department at his own efforts, when he solved them.
BRUCE GANEM: So you came to Cornell and it was winter of 1952.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It was winter of 1952. And through some unexpected quirks, I actually came as-- not as an instructor, which is what the opening was for, but as a DuPont postdoctoral Fellow. The department had DuPont money that it could invest in any way it wanted. And I had an appointment with no responsibilities at all, except to set up a lab, and get some interest in chemistry going. And the promise was that after that first year I would become an instructor, and then go through the ranks as it worked out.
So I came as an independent postdoc. Evenings I was still finishing the writing of my thesis. And in the lab I could do anything I wanted, which was a terrific opportunity. One talks nowadays about start-up money for packaging, and that's kind of interesting. The start-up money for me, as explained by Professor Johnson was, you can take anything out of the stock room you want and you don't need to pay for it.
So I had free access to this stock room, period. And it turned out that was about all you needed to get going in those days. It's hugely different from how it is now.
BRUCE GANEM: Well, there were no big instruments that you absolutely had to have, I'm guessing.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. We had an infrared spectrophotometer which was the main useful-- it had ultraviolet. And they were really the only two physical methods available anyway.
BRUCE GANEM: So with your own two hands, you started doing chemistry on several different projects, right?
JERROLD MEINWALD: So I started with chemistry on some natural product structures, on some molecular arrangements. Mike Cava had suggested that an amusing and accessible problem was to look at the active component in catnip. And there was a little bit of literature on catnip oil and how cats love it. And it seemed there was a simple 10 carbon compound whose structure had not been elucidated that the cats loved. And that was one of the things I worked on, and it worked out very nicely.
BRUCE GANEM: So you could solve that structure just using infrared spectrophotometry?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Solved that structure using a little bit of synthetic chemistry or degradation products and using infrared, and applying the isoprene rule, suggesting how the carbon atoms might be arranged. And that was a nice problem. Yeah, and it worked out very well, and that was one of our early publications.
BRUCE GANEM: So when the news of the structure of catnip was announced, did you get inquiries? Was it something people picked up on at the time?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Oh, a little bit. There might have been a story in Chemical & Engineering News. Some of it was anti-climactic. I remember giving a seminar at Brookhaven National Lab on this great triumph of finishing catnip oil. And the combination of the seminar was going to be somebody brought in a cat, and I was going to show the cat's response to this stuff.
It turns out, not all cats respond.
BRUCE GANEM: [LAUGH]
JERROLD MEINWALD: I think there's a genetic trait that some of them have it, some of them don't. And I had a non-responding cat. So the chemistry was good, but I had not realized you have to pick your subject carefully.
BRUCE GANEM: Interesting. So you worked on rearrangements. I recall a really amazing rearrangement involving a carboxylic migration that you studied. You talked about in your seminar at Cornell not long ago.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. There was a rearrangement that I discovered actually reading the obituary of an old Swiss organic chemist. And he had found what seemed to be a very long range migration of a methyl group when this stannenic acid, it was called, was put into sulfuric acid. And I spent a lot of time being interested in molecular rearrangements because they play a very important role in structure determination at that time, where structures were determined mostly on the basis of chemical reactions, rather than physical spectroscopic properties.
And so rearrangements were important, and here was this long range methyl migration that made absolutely no sense. And it turned out if you looked at these structures, you could realize that you could come to the same final product structure without moving a methyl at all, but by moving a carboxyl group from one end of a molecule to another. And there's no reason why that would be easier, but it would have been a different mechanism, and maybe it would lead to understanding it.
We decided to study that rearrangement, and indeed, doing some C14 tracer experiments we could show that this was a carboxyl migration for which there was no particular precedent. And we could work out the details of how that worked. That was a really interesting mechanistic study.
BRUCE GANEM: So the first few years moved quickly, and you were successful in a range of different projects. I've noticed that from your early publication list. And then it must have been fairly soon after that, that you met Tom Eisner that you know.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. So Tom Eisner arrived in Cornell I think in 1957. And we were introduced by a mutual friend who was Howard Schneiderman who somehow knew us both from Harvard. And when Tom Eisner came to Cornell, Schneiderman actually brought him around to my office and said, here's our youngest faculty member in entomology, and he does some interesting work involving insect chemistry, and maybe you can give him a hand now and then.
So I began talk with Tom Eisner. We'd often have lunch over in the Statler, and he would tell me-- in one lunch he would tell me about a half dozen different insect stories that seemed to involve chemistry. I had a hard job keeping these stories distinct one from the other. And some of them clearly involved chemistry that you could approach and it would be fun to do, and some involved maybe high polymers, and I didn't know quite how to work on those problems.
So I could sort of select a subset of the things that Tom was telling me, and that he was excited about.
BRUCE GANEM: So he had been going in and out of the field bringing back insects and studying their behavior.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That's right. So he knew a lot of natural history. He knew the lives of insects, and in great detail. And he had a talent for bringing these insects into the lab, and if they had behaviors that involved chemistry, he would be able to dissect out the glands that contained the active chemicals. And then he didn't know where to go from there.
On the other hand, if he brought over a little glass vile and said, here's some stuff that has interesting biological activity, can you figure out what it is? That'd be just the sort of problem that we could attack.
BRUCE GANEM: Would be like the pantolactone story.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah, that's right. The nice thing about it is that lots of people work on plant alkoloids, or plant aromatic compounds, or drugs of one sort or another. But at that time, practically nobody was interested in insects as chemists, or in plants, doing chemistry relevant to insects. And it turns out, that that's a pretty fruitful area for organic chemists, and it had the great virtue that we could work on these problems and it wasn't hotly competitive.
BRUCE GANEM: Yeah. You had that field to your own.
JERROLD MEINWALD: You could just quietly do it. You had it to yourself. Nobody even knew there were such problems. But when they were done, you could tell about them and usually they made very interesting stories.
BRUCE GANEM: Gosh, there are so many of those stories in your collaborations with Tom. I remember you worked on the whip scorpion and the bombardier beetle. Any in particular that are fun to talk about today?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. Well, the ship scorpion's a fearful looking beast, but it's not a stinging scorpion. And actually, it's very interesting. That's the very first thing we worked on. They live in Arizona, in Texas, sort of in desert areas. They're called vinegar ruins in some places, and, indeed, they smell like vinegar. They have a secretion that they can aim at an enemy that attacks them and spring it-- at every whiff, it repels enemies. And it takes an afternoon to discover that the secretion is 85% acetic acid. And one isn't going to become a famous chemist based on finding acetic acid.
On the other hand, it turns out there's about 5% of a minor component, which is an eight carbon acid, caprylic acid, which is vital to the functioning of the acetic acid. It helps the acetic acid penetrate the cuticle of attacking insects, as the acetic acid then goes right to the cuticle and becomes a lethal weapon.
What we discovered in doing that work is that even if the-- Now, caprylic acid's not a very complicated chemical either. But what you realize is that the application of these simple materials to important biological functions doesn't depend on them having sophisticated structures that you can mobilize very simple materials, And they might be benzoquinones, or they might be benzaldehyde, or they might be rather simple things that you could detect quickly, which are vastly useful for the survival of the species that produce them.
So we began more and more studying mainly defensive chemistry. 80% or 90% of the time it would be routine, chemically, but made an interesting biological story. 10% or 20% of the time they really were challenging structures, and it was interesting to work out the structures, to work out the biosynthetic pathways, how do the insects come by these chemicals. And after a while, one gets an overall picture of the insect world being very sophisticated. Using organic chemistry, you move their lives forward.
BRUCE GANEM: So when you and Tom would be together, how would you decide when to move on to the next species, or when to look at some different question? Because I know you worked a lot also on butterflies, and then soon on the interaction of insects and plants.
JERROLD MEINWALD: I usually relied on Tom to select what problems to work on. There's something like a million described species of insects, and so you can't work on random ones. One of Tom's great talents was recognizing when an insect seemed to be having some really unusual behavior that depended on chemistry, or some unusual dependence on a particular plant. And so then we would focus on these outstanding things.
Again, where as many researchers took quite different approaches, like they would say, locusts are a very important pest, and let's study locusts, we didn't have that approach at all. We had an approach of here are some interesting phenomena that I've observed in nature, and what's going on? Yeah. So at one point he discovered that there was some very interesting interactions in a tropical butterfly living in Trinidad, where it was well known at that time, just becoming well known, that many female moths can attract males by giving tiny amounts of an attractive chemical, and males would come to them.
So females signaling males was becoming a well known phenomenon. What there were no examples of is males doing any chemistry that's of interest to females. But it turns out in these tropical butterflies, which incidentally, females don't use sex attractants. Females appear. Males have good vision. They see females, they fly to them from the visual advantage.
BRUCE GANEM: They're very brightly colored.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That's right. And then it turns out that in these Trinidad butterflies, the males have particular courtship organs that they can emerge from the tip of the abdomen. They brush across the female antennae in flight, and the females respond by alighting on some greenery and allow the males to approach them and mate with them.
And so we looked into the male signaling system. What is the male telling the female that gets her to be interested in mating? And that turned out to be a really interesting story that we studied for about 20 years, going from one species to another and picking apart the different details of the process. So first thing we did is we found the structure of the signal chemical that the female responds to that the male gives her. And the structure looked like nothing ever seen from any animal at all. It looked like a plant alkaloid.
What we finally realized by studying related butterflies in East Africa, where I had an opportunity to work, we discovered that, indeed, this thing looks like an alkaloid because the butterfly, the African analog of this butterfly, makes it from an alkaloid.
BRUCE GANEM: From a plant alkaloid.
JERROLD MEINWALD: From a plant alkaloid. So we discovered these-- they're called the African monarch. The African monarch flies out in nature, seeks particular plants, sucks in the juices of the senescent plants. They contain an alkaloid of lycopsamine. Modifies the lycopsamine, makes the synthetic male pheromone, and that's what the females respond to.
We tried hard to understand how could life be so complicated? How could the reproduction of this insect depend on the male going out, doing sort of ethnobotany and finding--
BRUCE GANEM: And then semi-synthesis after that.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --beautiful things, and then metabolizing and signaling the female? How could reproduction depend on all that?
What we finally discovered is that this is a really wonderfully sensible system, and what is really going on is that the male-- males gather these toxic alkaloids from plants. When they mate with the females, they transmit the intact alkaloid along with sperm. The females put this alkaloid into their eggs, and the eggs become inedible to predators. And the female is essentially questioning the male in courtship to say have you got the alkaloid to protect our children? And the male has to let her know.
So courtship of these butterflies takes about 10 seconds. In this 10 seconds he tells her, I am a good father for our offspring because I bear the protective compounds. And he does that by giving her the chemical that's made from the alkaloid. So like a certified--
BRUCE GANEM: A gift.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --check.
BRUCE GANEM: Or a dowry almost.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. Say I'm going to be a good father, and here's the evidence. And when she sees the evidence, then she's happy to have him as a mate. If he doesn't have that signal, she flies away from him.
So that's a very interesting interaction between insects and other insects, between insects and plants, which nobody suspected anything like that was going on. And it's turned out it's not unique. We have then found examples of similar strategies in beetles in all sorts of ways.
BRUCE GANEM: So the key must have been-- the clue must have come from finding this in the eggs.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, the clue was on the one hand finding that the eggs are chemically protected if the female has mated with a well-endowed male. And the chemical similarity of the pheromone structure and the alkaloid structure gave the first chemical clue that there is a connection. Yeah.
BRUCE GANEM: So butterflies taught us about plant-insect interactions in part, and about nuptial gifts.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. Yeah. Tom was wonderful at making up names for these phenomena. So he would talk about nuptial gifts, and that that's a good, useful term.
BRUCE GANEM: It's a very descriptive term. So later in your career you also got interested in spiders. And in fact, fairly recently.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, spiders are very interesting creatures. There's something like 40,000 described species of spider, and they're presumably all characterized by being able to paralyze their prey. So they make neuroactive compounds that one might want to learn about. It turns out there are hundreds of papers looking at spider metabolites. Many of them look mainly at proteins or peptide derivatives, and at larger molecules.
We began looking at spiders, actually, because a small company called Cambridge Neurosciences had come to see me and said, we have a spider-derived compound that might be an interesting pharmaceutical product if we could discover its structure. And they said, well, if we gave you the spider secretion, and if we supported one research person, would you be interested in doing that? And that sounded quite intriguing.
We worked for over a year on the structure of the material that Cambridge Neuroscience gave us, and it worked out interestingly. We were very slow in figuring out what it was because it was a compound which was, again, unprecedented in nature. So it involved a nucleic acid base and a sugar and they were sulfated sugars. And no one had seen anything like that from spiders or anywhere else.
BRUCE GANEM: This was HF-7 if I remember correctly.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So the company had called it HF-7, and so it took us a while but we finally figured out the structure of HF-7. And just about that time, Cambridge Neuroscience looked at that structure and said, oh, that's too complicated. We're not going to make a drug out of that. They completely lost interest. On the other hand, we were quite intrigued, having found something new. So we began looking at-- we looked at over 70 different spider secretions, venoms to see were there more compounds like that, and to be able to exploit their biology. And as you well know, you and I actually collaborated on--
BRUCE GANEM: We did. That was a great--
JERROLD MEINWALD: Synthetic work.
BRUCE GANEM: --joint project we had.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. It was a very nice project. And it turns out about 10% of the spiders we looked at have the sulfated toxic components whose chemistry we still don't know too much about, and whose biology we know almost nothing about. That's still a field for fruitful research.
BRUCE GANEM: I remember there were other spider constituents. Some were polyamine-based that I had gotten interested in. And Merck was quite interested in many of those compounds.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That's right.
BRUCE GANEM: I'm sure a lot of what you did was of interest to industry. You must have had some other interesting industrial interactions in your career.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Actually, I had very interesting consulting connections to industry, which went back to very early in my career. And I think if I boiled out all of the consulting experience, its main value was what I learned from it, rather than from what I was able to teach the companies. But I got into that in an interesting way.
When I'd been at Cornell maybe about three or four years, it occurred to me that here I am in a great department and a great university, but of course, one doesn't expect to be able to get tenure in a job like this. And it would be prudent if I learned something about the pharmaceutical industry where lots of really good chemistry goes on.
BRUCE GANEM: So we're back in the '50s now.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And is back in the '50s. And so I wrote Merck, and Squibb, and Cyanamid, and Schering, and a bunch of company, literally-- Searle in Chicago-- and said, in the summer I'm committed, and I could imagine spending a summer doing research in your lab, if you would welcome an academic visitor. And we could maybe both benefit from that.
Both companies wrote back and said, no, that really wouldn't make great sense to have an outsider becoming privy to all our results and whatnot. But one company, Schering in New Jersey, Schering Corporation said, why don't you come talk to us? And I spent a day visiting, sharing. The research director was a man called EB Hershberg who's name I knew--
BRUCE GANEM: Oh, sure.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --who's a student of Louis Fieser. And at the end of the day, I came to see EB, and he said, well, you know, my colleagues enjoy talking with you, but a summer job wouldn't make any sense. But how would you like to be a consultant for us, and we will pay you $200 a day, which at that time--
BRUCE GANEM: Was a substantial amount of money.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --my annual stipend was $3,600. And so $200 a day is not bad at all. You know, you come four or six times a year, and you can consult with us. At that time, Schering had only one other consultant, because they hired recently, who was Derek Barton felt London. And so Derek Barton and I became the Schering chemical consultants.
That connection went on for about 40 or 45 years, and it was really interesting. So I would go, and they were very involved in steroid chemistry at the time, and I would talk to the individual chemists and we would work out how their steroid chemistry was doing. And I learned an awful lot of steroid chemistry. And now and then you do think of something that you haven't thought of.
BRUCE GANEM: You might have seen a paper they've missed.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. R So you call their attention to this or that. That was a really good experience, and I really did learn a lot from that industrial relationship.
BRUCE GANEM: Was it a conduit for students and postdocs to jobs?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Indeed. Well, in general, it informs even one's teaching because you can bring some practical examples of organic chemistry and action in your elementary organic classes. But also, when I came out of Harvard I knew nothing about industry at all.
But by virtue of that connection, I could sort of tell them what young chemists do when they go into industry, and what things they want-- what talents they want to cultivate it. They want to be good at it. And I could also tell them were they likely to enjoy a pharmaceutical job or would it be frustrating. Would they be able to understand that we'll work really hard on the synthesis, but if it turns out this compound has been neurotoxicity or god knows what, the project's going to be dropped like that.
And you have to want to drop it. You have to say, well, too bad. The chemistry was going well, but this is not going to be a drug. I want to start my next project because my job is to discover drugs. And if that would be too frustrating, you're going to be very unhappy in work at Schering because those things happen all the time.
BRUCE GANEM: So you enjoyed your time over that long stretch of consulting at Schering.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Oh, yes. I enjoyed it very much.
BRUCE GANEM: Ashit Ganguly was director of research for a long time at Schering.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That's right.
BRUCE GANEM: You two became pretty good friends, I remember.
JERROLD MEINWALD: He had been a postdoc, in fact, with Derek Barton. A lot of the-- Barton sent a lot of his very best people to Schering, and they were really good chemists, by and large. So one got to know some very good people.
Some of the time my job was essentially to be a translator because Barton was an imposing figure. And the way we would consult is that he and I would be sitting at a table and opposite us would be the [INAUDIBLE] chemists, and EB Hershberg would be sitting there. And they were supposed to get up and explain their problems. And under those circumstances, it's very scary for the chemists.
BRUCE GANEM: I'm sure.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So they would describe in as favorable terms as they could-- what their results were and what was troubling them. And Barton would sometimes just say a sentence or two directing them to something in the literature, and they might not catch the remark at all. So it wasn't enormously helpful.
The following day I would see these chemists one-on-one, and they would say, what is it Barton was referring to, because they were embarrassed to ask, especially in front of their boss. And I would say, well, what Barton was saying is this and that, and this is what he meant, and this is where you should go to look it up. And so I was sort of explicating their master's advice, which the chemists found really useful.
So that was one of my roles is I was also learning from Barton, but sometime I got the clue more quickly than they did.
BRUCE GANEM: You talked a little bit about going to Africa, to East Africa. And I know you spent some time working on a project with Koji Nakanishi--
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. So there was a time--
BRUCE GANEM: --on insects.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --I guess in the mid-1960s or the late '60s when Carl Djerassi at Stanford got interested in chemistry related to insects, and had realized that there was a newly discovered compound, juvenile hormone, that actually controls the metamorphosis of insects. And Djerassi realized that insects are very exciting things, and had conceived of the idea that maybe one could start a research lab in Africa somewhere, where insects were plentiful, and where one could do a lot of basic research on insect chemistry which might directly or indirectly help his new company, which was called Zoecon.
And so he got a few people that he knew, biologists and chemists, to see would they be interested in starting up a research lab in Nairobi. Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city in Kenya, and it's English-speaking, aside from Swahili, which is an East African language, but it had been a British colony. And Nairobi, most people who go on safari start out going to Nairobi and they have a base there, and then the rest of Africa. And Koji and I were the two organic chemists that Carl got to go out there. And that pattern was why don't we take postdoc candidates who we thought would be in this sort of semi-independent position, and set them up in Nairobi to do insect related research and see what we could accomplish in a collaborative way.
We got support from United Nations. United Nations contributed a lot of money. Some companies gave money. And we had the directors of the lab, but all the representatives of the National Science academies of US, of Denmark, Sweden, Holland, France, Germany, Max Planck Society gave some support. We got very good international support, a very impressive board of directors.
So our task as leaders of groups there was just to find interesting chemistry that one could discover studying African insects. So Koji and I both did that, and we would go to Nairobi a few times a year. We had some very good postdocs. One that I had was Glenn Prestwich-- a very distinguished career after that.
BRUCE GANEM: I knew Glenn, yup.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And these postdocs lived in way that postdocs don't normally live-- there's hardly a postdoc stipend. They could rent a nice apartment. They could have a house boy who did all their shopping and cooking for them. They lived a glorious and colonial style, and they could concentrate on their chemistry. It was a wonderful experience for them.
We worked a lot on termites. It's turns out termites are very interesting chemists. And we worked on these African butterflies, which were very important for us. We had great fun doing that.
The idea of the lab was initially, that it would have foreign research directors, such as we were. But that in the long run, we would phase ourselves out and we would appoint African research directors as they appeared on the scene. And that lab, which is called ICP, still exists. It has now a few hundred researchers.
It's a great center in Nairobi if someone wants to spend a sabbatical leave and have access to good mass spectrometry and NMR spectrometry and all those things. And it studies-- it's gone a little bit more from basic research to applied research, but it's applied to problems that are important and useful in Africa.
BRUCE GANEM: So was the Institute successful in training African scientists or recruiting African scientists?
JERROLD MEINWALD: It trained African scientists who would then go back to their universities. The director of it was a really interesting man called Tom Odhiambo.
BRUCE GANEM: Oh, yes.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And Tom Odhiambo had been a student of Sir Vincent Wigglesworth who was the father of insect physiology in Cambridge. Wigglesworth declared Odhiambo to be his best student ever-- highly, highly productive. And he was a young-- I think he was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi when he and Djerassi really organized this lab. And he directed that lab for many years. Highly articulate man. He spoke better English than any of us with this sort of British education, who was very good at raising money. He gave wonderful talks and attracted a lot of support.
And so that was an interesting experience. In fact, the sculpture behind you is a Makonde sculpture that, one of many, that I would buy when I would be in that area of the country.
BRUCE GANEM: It sounds like this was a hugely successful experiment.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It was a successful experiment, and an enjoyable experiment, and produced real science, and contributed to the development of chemistry and biology in Africa.
BRUCE GANEM: Was Tom Eisner involved in any way?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Tom Eisner was not. One of the interesting things about Tom Eisner is that he didn't get on a airplanes. And when he would go on sabbatical leave to Europe, or even to Australia, he did that by ship. But he was not about to sail back and forth to Africa. He mainly stayed in Ithaca all the time.
So we did that. If we had had Tom Eisner in Nairobi, the lab would have been even more successful than it was, by quite a bit. But, no, he was not involved there.
BRUCE GANEM: So more recently, you've been involved in an institute being planned for Brazil, is that right?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Very interestingly-- So Koji and I became great friends and collaborators through that African experience. And about 20 years after we had done that-- that was the late '60s and early '70s. Maybe about in the early '90s, Koji had a friend in New Jersey who was a Japanese Brazilian, is a person who had grown up in San Paolo from a Japanese family. Went to Caltech as an undergrad-- his name was Dr. [INAUDIBLE]. And then [INAUDIBLE] went to Bell Labs-- had a nice research career in Bell Labs. And then retired a bit early, and wanted to go back to Brazil and bring some more contemporary chemistry to the Brazilian scene.
And since he and Koji had somehow become good friends, he asked Koji could he help him set up a research center in Sao Paolo to study natural products. And since Koji and I had worked together, Koji said would I join him in that endeavor. It looked like a great opportunity, and so Koji and I began thinking about how to organize a lab in Brazil. And its main purpose would be to look at the Amazonian region as chemists and see what could we do with Amazonian plants and animals that would be scientifically interesting and also useful.
BRUCE GANEM: And timely, before any further destruction of that region takes place.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Indeed. And so we began doing that. I organized a meeting at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and we brought in some Brazilian scientists, and Japanese, and Europeans, and Americans. Tom Eisner participated in that. Tom Eisner sort of grew up in South America in Uruguay. And we talked about the potential of starting a lab something like this African lab, maybe in Manaus, which is in the heart of the Amazon.
And indeed, we talked about it. We planned to organize it. The Brazilian Federal government, to our amazement, committed much more money than we had expected to set up such a lab. But ultimately-- that was about maybe 50 years ago or so. It turned out it's much harder, at least for us, it was much harder to establish a functioning lab in Brazil than it had been in Africa.
So our experience in Kenya was really quite good. And I think because Kenya had been a British colony, it was set up in a way that Americans could understand the ethos very, very well. Brazil has, of course, not been a British colony. It has its own style. And none of us, neither Koji, nor I, nor the biologist who we were talking to, had South American experience at all.
And whereas it looked very promising, it turns out we weren't really successful in navigating the system very well. That lab, maybe now 15 years later, is just barely getting going. In fact, it's a little too late for Koji's career and mine, and it's a little late for Brazil. Because the environment is being destroyed at a fearful rate.
Even when we were organizing it, we had the secretary for Amazonian affairs come to our initial meeting. And he talked about the Amazon region and explained that, well, it's being destroyed at a significant rate, and he showed us the map of the Amazon, and superimposed the country of France. And they have already lost-- had already lost at that time, an area equivalent to France, of nature was gone forever.
BRUCE GANEM: To development, basically.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. Just by clear-cutting and selling the lumber and whatnot, or trying to do clear-cutting and trying to do agriculture, but in a thoughtless way. And it turns out the soil doesn't last very well when you cut down these forests. You need to understand how to do things there much better than was understood up to now.
And so nature is disappearing. Species are being lost forever. One will never know what great natural products might be in the plants, which are now going extinct. Someone described this as we're trying to look at nature's library, and nature's library is being destroyed before anybody's read any of the books. They're just-- they're going away.
So the pressures to work there are enormous. But it's a difficult organizational job, and we had not completely solved it.
BRUCE GANEM: It's too bad, because clearly the resources are there. Even more so now than ever, the economy's booming. But if the system can't be established that works well.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It's very hard. And there's not the same entrepreneurial spirit. There's not the tradition of people investing in science with the feeling that a half dozen years from now we'll find something that will make money. Because you can make money immediately by selling the lumber. And things need to change and need to be done in a more sophisticated way.
BRUCE GANEM: Jerry, we shouldn't leave today's conversation without talking about teaching some. You and I have had the pleasure of teaching organic chemistry together, but you've done far more than that. I don't know, where is a good place to start? In the early days after you became a tenured faculty member, or more recently? You've created quite a few courses.
JERROLD MEINWALD: I've taught introductory organic chemistry on and off for the entire 54 years that I've been teaching in Cornell. And somehow I find the subject just so beautiful and so intriguing that I still love to lecture on introductory organic chemistry. How do you figure out that carbon forms four bonds pointing to the corners of a tetrahedron. How that was done so long ago with no physical methods of determining structures or molecules, it's truly a wonderful story.
And so I really always enjoyed teaching introductory organic chemistry. It's a beautiful subject. You have to somehow get people to be not afraid of it and not to just be taking it because they need an A to go to medical school. They might start with that motivation, but if they could realize that, what do you know, this is an intriguing subject, and really quite beautiful and fun in its own right. So it's nice to teach sophomore organic chemistry and get that across.
Once I started working with Tom Eisner, I began drawing in more and more biological examples to the teaching. And finally, Tom and I began teaching a course in chemical communication, where we would talk about how plants talk to each other, how bacteria talk to each other, how fungi talk to each other. We sort of broadened our own research interests to looking more broadly, and to make a really nice introductory course on the importance of chemical interactions in biology in general.
At that time we began teaching chemical ecology or chemical communication, I think there were very few courses like that.
BRUCE GANEM: Was it a graduate course, or upper level course?
JERROLD MEINWALD: It was appropriate for seniors or graduate students. Many of the people who took that have gone on into the academic system throughout the country and are doing research of that sort and teaching of that sort, so that it's now a more widespread subject than it used to be. That teaching is entirely different from teaching pre-meds undergrad organic. But both the graduate course and the undergrad course I always found very intriguing, very much fun to talk about.
BRUCE GANEM: Now, there was a time we both remember when we were looking to create some courses for non-scientists. And you had a very popular course about chemical communication. It was slightly different than the one you've just described.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. Well, what occurred to me, just occurred to me sometimes socially. You'd be at a party with some colleagues, and colleagues in other fields, and so you always ask colleagues, well, what do you work on? What do you do? And so students would ask me what-- I'd say well, I'm a chemistry professor. They'd say, well, what does a chemistry professor do?
So I would tell them things like stories about butterfly courtship and how females select mates based on chemical signals. And what I realized is that you can explain to your government professor or an English professor in 10 or 15 minutes with a glass of sherry in your hand and no blackboard, you can tell that story in a way that he walks away amazed that that's what a chemistry is doing, is studying how male butterflies seduce females using chemistry.
And it occurred to me that he then has an impression of chemistry quite different from he would have had before we had that glass of sherry together. And then I thought, you know why couldn't one do that in a class? Why couldn't you have a chemistry course with no prerequisite, use non-technical terms, but you explain what the chemistry is, and then you go back and fill in the details so that the students could actually learn what is the underlying chemistry. How do you solve this problem? And you would end up with students with some appreciation of one area where chemistry is contributing to biology, or in some instances, how some medicine was developed, or how some other useful material was developed.
You could actually teach that if you would be patient enough, and give students a picture of chemistry entirely different than they normally would have. Right. So we started, of course, doing that, which worked quite well.
BRUCE GANEM: It was extremely popular.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It worked quite well. And recently I edited a book for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with a colleague John Hildebrand who's a good friend of Tom Eisner's in Arizona, where we looked at what are novel ways of teaching science-- our approach is one.
There are other ways you can approach bringing on scientists into the field of science and getting them to understand that without a math background, without chemical prerequisites, and that that would be a useful way of bringing our students who are just liberal arts majors, not in science, bringing them a little bit into our world. So that was also an enjoyable teaching endeavor, which worked out well.
BRUCE GANEM: Some of the stories, as I hear you talking about them, remind me of some of the talks you've given at National Organic Symposia and other big conferences. I don't think I know anyone else who's gone as a plenary speaker to so many different National Organic Symposia, and maybe you can tell us about that. But with talks that start with some basic research investigation that leads to something that could become a useful drug.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yes. Well, one thing is--
BRUCE GANEM: Is it eight or nine National Organic Symposia? It's a large number.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Actually, I think it was five. But those are meeting that take place only in alternate years. There were some years where I declined to give.
The way the speakers are selected for that is the membership of the ACS is polled. Who would you like to speak at your next symposium.
BRUCE GANEM: You're a very popular guy.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And normally, people give one or two talks of that sort in their career. But in fact, I would be asked year after year. And some years either I had a conflict of time, or I thought I didn't really have enough new material to do it. But many times I did do it.
And it's interesting, because you can give talks that have real chemical content, but also the chemists can bring their wives, and their wives will get about as much out of the talk as the chemists themselves. And this is just a very fortunate subject that you can treat in that way. Many aspects of chemistry you couldn't possibly give a lecture like that. This sort of thing I realized early, that if your mother came to a lecture, she could understand that lecture and she could probably understand what you're doing.
BRUCE GANEM: Maybe not everyone could give such a talk, but you certainly give a spectacular talk that a general audience can appreciate. No one I think does it better than you, Jerry.
We should also talk about the various academies and your interactions with them. I know you were elected to the National Academy quite early in your career. And I've mentioned also, the American Academy, and the American Philosophical Society, and you've been quite active in those groups. Tell us about that.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Tom and I were both elected to the National Academy in 1969. So Tom was 40, I guess. I was 42. That's fairly young. And at that time, I think we regarded that as mainly a great honor and a very prestigious thing. We weren't really thinking about what the Academy actually does.
The National Academy, actually, was founded in the time of the Civil War. And its purpose was to provide unbiased expert advice to the government. That's still the purpose of the National Academy of Sciences. So we'd undertake-- so if the government wants to know, say, about the role of pesticides in the environment, is that becoming problematic, how should we treat that? We'll ask the Academy to put together a committee to do a serious study of how pesticides are involved in the environment. What should we do we should promote the beneficial use of pesticides, or to prevent the use of difficult ones or whatever.
And there'll be a year or two study by an expert committee. It'll report to the government. And the government will presumably rely on that to direct policy.
BRUCE GANEM: Those were the days.
JERROLD MEINWALD: That's it's official roles, and those were the days when it did it. So in part, there's a serious purpose and there's an honor. The Academy also publishes the proceedings of the National Academy, which is a major prestigious scientific journal of all fields.
So when we were elected to the National Academy, we thought isn't that terrific. Neither of us did very much about it. But then Tom became very involved. The Academy is concerned with human rights very much, and Tom became very involved in things where there are human rights violations against scientists worldwide.
I'm now on the Editorial Board of proceedings of the National Academy, and I'm trying to build up its publication record in chemical ecology, which is sort of an orphan field. It's not yet as the center of our subject. But there's beautiful work going on. And when I get good papers submitted, I can guide them through the editorial process and help them appear.
So in recent times, I've been quite involved with the Academy, although I wasn't before.
BRUCE GANEM: You have more time now.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And I have more time.
BRUCE GANEM: Easier to be away.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It's a very good thing to do when one is officially retired. In the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, somehow I evolved into being Secretary of the Academy. That was an academy founded by John Adams. It's much older than the National Academy. And its purpose was to promote useful knowledge. And again, it's a great honor to be elected to it. Besides the honor, it does things.
The American Academy has a broader range of subject matter, so it's arts and sciences. It has members in all fields. It doesn't wait for the government to ask-- it has no government connection. It doesn't wait for the government to say, we'd like to know something about this subject. Its members think about what are the important national problems, and what problems would benefit from interdisciplinary studies of what that problem is, be it weapons in space, or be it protection of the internet, or be it the fate of humanities in United States' education.
And then it initiates its own studies. It puts together interdisciplinary groups, and those studies are then published and widely distributed. There's been a very recent study on research policy, United States, with respect to especially health-related research. [COUGH] It had a committee headed by Tom Cech, who's a Nobel Laureate, on NIH support of health research.
And it did discover some really interesting things. It turns out that the average age when an independent investigator gets his first grant from NIH is 42 years old. That's practically halfway through one's career. And if you've got to wait till you're 42 to get your first independent research grant, that's too late.
And so the study that came out wasn't a plea for more money, but for more intelligent use of the money that we've got. And it said, you've got to not just support research that's sort of a sure thing where there's five years of results and now I'm going to pursue that. But where there's a really brilliant idea and no results at all, perhaps, but let's give it a shot. And maybe this idea's from a 28-year-old investigator. Let's put money into that.
And the NIH, indeed, has become much more supporting young people as a result of that study. This study has been really influential. They had started some programs for young investigators. They had done one, and it turns out there was so much pressure on the system, that the funding available was 1% of what was applied for. And again, this report pointed out it's stupid to have a program when you ask for great proposals from young people, you get all these great proposals. You involve so much time referring those proposals, bringing them to study sections, debating them. And then in the end you support 1%. Nothing comes out of that.
So if you start a program, you have to be sure you have the funding to go with it. So all of those things are having a real influence, and all the American Academy reports aren't that successful, but that one is having a great influence, and there's the potential for really helping guide academic research in the US.
BRUCE GANEM: Well, honestly, Jerry, anyone who knows you would know that this would be a natural fit for the sorts of interests you've had. I will always remember after my Cornell interview in 1973, that you showed up in San Francisco. We had planned you were going to be there, and we had dinner together-- a dinner that was extremely influential in my decision to come here.
And I also remember that you just casually mentioned that night at dinner that you had bought tickets for a concert at the Fillmore West, which was a place for the loudest, most boisterous music of my generation, and I was just astonished by that. And then again, hearing that you'd gone to the Fillmore East in New York City to-- I guess it was Bill Graham's Fillmore East, to hear some of the latest rock bands of that era. So you had a profound influence on me in the sense that you could do great things in science and still have these amazingly broad interests in music. So it's a natural fit for this report that you would have helped commission to do that.
We didn't talk about the American Philosophical Society. Are there activities there that are of keen interest to chemists?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, there could be. The Philosophical Society, actually, was started by Benjamin Franklin. It's slightly older than the American Academy. And again, Franklin's idea was to get a bunch of his buddies together in Philadelphia and talk about what were going to be the needs of this new country, and how could they help advance the country by studying agriculture, or medicine, or business, or whatever, that would help things flourish. They also referred to useful knowledge.
The American Academy has a continuous history since then-- the Philosophical Society. And in part it's almost a subset of the National Academy. It has something like 700 members, therefore, it's more club-like. It has distinguished national membership, and also, quite a few foreign members. It has meetings twice a year.
I was elected, I think, in the mid-1980s. I was confused at first. There seemed to be very few philosophers that were members of it. But it turns out that what Franklin meant by philosophy was natural philosophy. It was really science. But it has, again, a broad membership now. It tends to elect people who have been active and productive in whatever their fields are.
What I've mainly enjoyed there is I'm on the program committee. And what's great fun is selecting people who will give really informed talks and really teach us something about a subject that we'd like to know about and we think is important. The Program Committee has about 15 members, so there's expertise in a lot of fields.
The talks are very unusual. The people are invited to give a 20 minute talk, which is not easy. 20 minute talk.
BRUCE GANEM: That's like five slides almost.
JERROLD MEINWALD: You have to really prepare it very carefully to teach the audience a little bit about what this field is about, to have some context, then what interesting thing you want to tell them in that field of your own work, or of other contemporary work. And then sum it up so they go away with a message. People prepare those talks very, very carefully, and they inform us in interesting ways.
We do get awfully good people. So once there was supposed to be a talk by a young lawyer who-- I forget what he was going to talk about. But it turned out he couldn't come because he was being drafted to help write a constitution for Iraq. He was a young professor at NYU. And so, he had clerked for Judge David Souter, and had since he couldn't give the talk on Iraq, David Souter came to read his paper.
So that's the quality of speaker we would get. Souter did a wonderful job of reading his clerk's paper. He ran a little over time, and when you run over time, a little red light comes on to stop you. And when the little red light came on and Souter hadn't quite finished the paper, he took out his handkerchief, covered up the red light, and finished his talk.
BRUCE GANEM: That's a marvelous story.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So that group, it's great fun. It also has a research program. It supports young investigators. It supports field research, even by graduate students. It turns out it's very hard to get research for a young biologist to go out in the field and do their studies. It costs almost nothing. Hundreds of dollars or a few thousand dollars will get a grad student to spend, say, a month in Ecuador, and discover all kinds of great things.
The Philosophical Society supports a lot of that. I review a lot of those grant proposals, and you read these intriguing proposals where for modest sums you can do exploratory things in areas which are not in the forefront of medicine or whatnot right now, but are in the forefront of some field of knowledge. And the Philosophical Society has a wonderful library. It has things like all the Lewis and Clark papers and all the things related to that.
People come from all over to use their research library. And so its main scholarly activities are the library and support of research among very young investigators, and it has these wonderful meetings.
BRUCE GANEM: There must be some philanthropy that backs up the Society.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah.
BRUCE GANEM: They get gifts and so forth.
JERROLD MEINWALD: They get gifts from foundations, they get gifts from members who have a great time going, and often leave their money. In fact, it's really interesting. The Philosophical Society has an endowment, and, say, in a couple of weeks we'll be going to the fall meeting. If you get yourself to Philadelphia, they put you up in the hotel, they feed you the meals during the meeting. They host you completely. So you're the guest of the Society. The National Academy-- and it has no dues. It's just presented to you. It's great fun, those meetings.
The National Academy has a party or two, but charges you for them when they have a meeting. It has no dues. it is well enough endowed, and it makes money from the government studies and the government pays for the studies. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is not as well endowed, does not get big grants from the government, typically. And therefore, it costs something like $300 a year just to stay a member of it. So they're economically, I think they're quite jealous of the Philosophical Society. But all of them need support. All of them get support from faithful members, and that helps them function.
BRUCE GANEM: So it's coming up on 60 years at Cornell.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right.
BRUCE GANEM: A long time to stay in one place. There was a time you left Cornell for a short time.
JERROLD MEINWALD: There was a time, after I'd been here 20 years, and things had been going along very well, and the work with Tom Eisner had gone very well. And as you well know, one gets offers from other institutions now and then to come and join their faculty. And there was one point an offer from University of California in San Diego in La Jolla, and La Jolla's sort of paradise on Earth.
And they were also associated with the Scripps Oceanographic Institution, which is one of the world's great oceanographic laboratories. And I spent a little time there as a visiting professor. And it looked to me as if the world of terrestrial biology was going along quite well, and we knew a lot of about insects and plants. But the world of marine biology was very obscure, very exotic. These strange-looking creatures, and producing odd organic chemicals-- all kinds of halogenated compounds and exotic structures.
Some of them were potential drugs. One knew nothing about their actual role within the lives of the organisms producing them. And it seemed to me that if I would accept the offer in La Jolla, one might begin to do the things in the marine environment that would be analogous to what we had done with insects and plants, and that would be a sort of new frontier.
And so in 1972 I actually accepted a professorship there. And we sold our house, and we bought a house in La Jolla and began to work there. And for complicated reasons, it was much less satisfying than working at Cornell. The Cornell Chemistry Department is really a seductively attractive place. It's very [INAUDIBLE] as you well know.
BRUCE GANEM: Absolutely. You had a lot of friends here when you left.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, we had a friends both in chemistry, and in music, and in the university in general. It was a lovely environment. I missed that very much in UC-San Diego, which was a young institution, and feeling its weight. It had a chemistry department originally with Linus Pauling and Harold Urey, Nobel Laureate.
It built itself with stars, and its philosophy was we'll get these stars, and they'll do beautiful work, and we'll be a famous place. What it turns out doesn't work so well is if you import and depend upon people who already are proven honors in their own place. That it's very hard to get a coherent department.
There was a tendency for faculty in San Diego to set up a beautiful research lab, have no interest in the teaching, and no interest in talking to their colleagues. It was very, very insular. In fact, a lot of the things that were important at Cornell, like teaching-- graduate teaching or undergraduate teaching--
BRUCE GANEM: And talking to your colleagues.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --and talking to your colleagues didn't go on or went on not very well. And the Cornell Chemistry Department depended a lot for its growth on getting the brightest young assistant professors and trying to help their careers develop, as, say, your career or my career develop. And if you grow up within the department you have a kind of commitment to it and a feeling for it that you don't necessarily have if you were already a famous person at Chicago or Columbia or Caltech, then you come here and you just want to continue being the famous person you were.
The Cornell Department, actually, is able to do both, as we can recruit a star now and then, and they will fit into the culture that's already here, and do very, very nicely. But to have the department depend entirely on those outside people, I think it doesn't work. It wasn't working in La Jolla, and, in fact, it was so unsatisfactorily that we only stayed there a year.
And to my great, good luck, Cornell hadn't replaced me yet. In fact, officially, I was on leave because I brought eight students with me, eight Cornell students moved to San Diego and began working with me there. And I wanted to stay on their committee. So on paper I was on leave, although I had told the chair or the president that this is a permanent job and I've accepted it.
BRUCE GANEM: How did those students feel about coming back to winter in Ithaca?
JERROLD MEINWALD: They were delighted. Well, two of them finished, got their degrees, got jobs. Six came back. They convinced a couple of the San Diego students it's much better at Cornell than it is in California. So a few California students came back with them. They had a wonderful sort of sabbatical leave, and they enjoyed it. They could do tennis all year round, or golf, or surfing, as well as chemistry. Enjoyed the good weather. But they were happy to come back. My family was happy to come back. And I was happy to come back.
BRUCE GANEM: And we were thrilled that you came back, so that was mutually, a perfect solution. Looking back, since that time, another 30 or 40 years I guess at Cornell, what other changes have you noticed? I think the collegiality is something we still have. But it is getting harder to find time to talk to your colleagues. The internet makes life pretty insular now. You can just stay in your office and get everything you need. There's no physical sciences library.
JERROLD MEINWALD: There's no doubt that many, many things have changed. I guess when I came here, the Chemistry Department was in Baker Laboratory, and that was the only place it was.
BRUCE GANEM: There was no Olin Lab.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So I was on the building committee for Olin, the Olin, and that sort of doubled our research space. The research space is wonderful. The offices we have are lovely. It was fun being on that committee.
The original proposal was to build a lab with no windows. And I remember we objected. Bill Miller, who was chair of the committee saying we're not going to build a lab in Ithaca in these beautiful surroundings and not have any windows. We actually got the administration to change architects and build us a lab that we can be really proud of and comfortable in.
As you well know, chemistry professors essentially spend most of their life--
BRUCE GANEM: We don't get out much.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --in a laboratory.
BRUCE GANEM: That's right.
JERROLD MEINWALD: It's quite different from our colleagues in humanistic studies where they come to their office for office hours and they give their courses. But the way they work, it does really put them in the English building all the time.
BRUCE GANEM: Yeah, sometimes they teach in the Arts Quad on a nice day.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah. So life is different, and we got ourselves a beautiful building. Now we have still another building. And so chemistry is beginning to spread out.
Our problem in La Jolla was that chemistry was in four different buildings. And four different buildings, you don't interact with your colleagues very well. That's a thing I think we have to be aware of and worry about. We have to try very hard to keep seeing one another.
And other social things have changed. It used to be a lot of chemists would eat lunch in the Statler club and the Faculty Club. And I ate not only with Tom Eisner very often, but with chemical colleagues, and one could discuss informally lots of things that benefited from informal discussion.
BRUCE GANEM: And seminars were typically followed by a social hour.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Right. So attendance at seminars has changed. The problem is that chemistry has spread its wings. So there was a time when you could go to almost any chemistry seminar and understand it. That's not so easy now. There are seminars that I look at the title of and I don't even understand from the title what this seminar is going to be about.
BRUCE GANEM: Me, too.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And if I go to that talk, in the first five or 10 minutes I gain something from it, if the lecture is good. But then it gets into areas that I don't know the vocabulary for, and I can't really understand that talk anymore. And I think many of us experience that.
BRUCE GANEM: Yeah, it's discouraging.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Seminars become much more specialized. We don't have a common audience, and that's sort of discouraging. If you have a seminar where all the faculty goes also, then all the grad students tend to go. If their professors aren't going, they're not going to go.
That's a problem not of Cornell, but--
BRUCE GANEM: That's a problem in our field.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --of a subject, of the field. I suspect other subjects may have very similar problems, and the subjects have got so broad and so powerful that you can only know a part of it. Coming back to Woodward, Woodward considered himself not an organic chemist, but a chemist. And Woodward read, really, the inorganic literature, the physical literature. One of his great strengths is that he brought physical methods to be applied-- infrared spectroscopy, NMR, whatever, mass spec-- He brought them into his own field of expertise.
Nowadays, we can't read the literature in all the fields because there's too much of it.
BRUCE GANEM: We can barely read our own literature.
JERROLD MEINWALD: We can barely read our own literature. So the subject is changing.
BRUCE GANEM: And chemical ecology, this field you and Tom more or less gave birth to here at Cornell. We've seen it develop. Many great students of both of yours, you, and Tom, and others have started to work independently. What do you see as the future of chemical ecology?
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, chemical ecology is going to blossom and become more and more and more important. Because, in fact, whereas in the beginning we ourselves were just studying insect things, or spider things, or plant-insect relations. And there's a society of chemical ecology where maybe 50% of this work is in those areas.
But what's become absolutely clear now is that all organisms use chemistry for communicating. So bacteria have a phenomenon called quorum sensing where they can estimate what their populations are, and they can change their behavior when the population builds up to a certain number. There are organisms called slime molds which are essentially little amoeba, one-celled organisms. When slime molds use up a lot of the food in their area, they suddenly attract one another, form a little worm-like slug, which actually moves away and looks for food. When it finds food, it develops another sort of structure and forms spores which disperse and--
BRUCE GANEM: That's amazing.
JERROLD MEINWALD: --explore new areas. And so all of these things are talking to each other with chemical signals.
Just about two days ago I heard a wonderful lecture by a gal, Bonnie Bassler at Princeton who studies bacterial behavior and quorum sensing. And interestingly enough, Bonnie Bassler is a biologist and needs chemistry to understand what her bacteria are saying to each other. The chemist she works with is Martin Semmelhack. Marty Semmelhack was a Cornell chemistry professor who we lost ultimately to Princeton. And now he studied, really, synthetic chromium chemistry and whatnot and synthetic methods.
But she has him now studying how bacteria talk to one another. And these fields are going to be very important, because they control things like when bacteria become pathogenic and how they do that. How they form biofilms and change--
BRUCE GANEM: Adhere to things, yup. Sure.
JERROLD MEINWALD: And so bacteria are doing it, fungi are doing it, algae are doing it. Everybody is speaking chemistry. So chemical ecology, which is essentially just the study of those fields, is automatically going to grow. Marine chemical biology that I mentioned before is hard to study, because we have organisms that live, say, a mile deep, and you bring them up to the surface they explode. It's not so easy to study behavior of organisms like that.
But nevertheless, something like 2/3 of the Earth is covered by the oceans. Most of the photosynthesis on Earth is in the ocean, and not on land. We need to understand those organisms, and ultimately, we're going to depend on them a lot. That's a beautiful field.
But interestingly, it's hard to get support for the research. It's hard for individuals to pursue it, because you need to know not only all the relevant biology, but you need to bring the chemical tools. Those are going to be studied by collaborative groups, like the Eisner [INAUDIBLE] group, but maybe on a larger scale, and bringing different talents to the table.
So I think it's going to become a hugely important subject, but it hasn't quite yet. I was involved helping the Max Planck Society found their first laboratory for Chemical ecology.
BRUCE GANEM: In Jena.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Which is in Jena, in the former Eastern Germany. The Jena Lab is headed by Ian Baldwin who's a Cornell PhD, and that lab is now in the forefront of the subject. But there are not many labs like the Jena Lab and like Cornell, and its extension in Geneva where Wendell Roelofs was a great pioneer.
Wendell Roelofs got into-- I actually recruited him for Cornell. His training was in synthetic organic chemistry. He got to Geneva, and unlike Tom and me, he focused on important problems. So he worked on crops, and on pests, and did wonderful things. There'll be labs for chemical ecology. They may not call themselves that, but they will be developing, and we have increasing interest as time goes on.
BRUCE GANEM: Well, Cornell has certainly had its share of people. I think you inspired Jon Clardy to a significant extent. When Jon moved here from Iowa State and then began looking at organisms, I think most recently deep subterranean organisms and finding what interesting structures they produce by scanning large sections of their genome. I don't know whether May Berenbaum had been a student at Cornell?
JERROLD MEINWALD: May Berenbaum was a Cornell PhD. Also, a student of Paul Feeny's, and has become very influential in chemical ecology. And she now chairs the Entomology Department in University of Illinois.
BRUCE GANEM: And Jo Handelsman was a student at Cornell, now at Wisconsin doing--
JERROLD MEINWALD: Indeed, yeah.
BRUCE GANEM: --great things, I think.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Yeah, doing these very interesting things of getting DNA from the soil, and even though you don't know what organism this DNA comes from, you can find out what chemistry is it capable of doing.
BRUCE GANEM: So chemical ecology's in good shape.
JERROLD MEINWALD: So it's in good shape. It's alive and flourishing.
BRUCE GANEM: Well, I think that's probably a good point to wind things up. We've covered, as I had hoped, a lot of the highlights of your career, insights into some of the people you've known and trained, perspectives on where things are going. I've enjoyed this a lot, Jerry. It's been long overdue. We should have done this many months or even years ago. But I guess the longer that we've waited, we've concluded more and more perspective.
So thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, and I hope that this will become a valuable contribution to Cornell's Oral History Project.
JERROLD MEINWALD: Well, thank you. It's been a great pleasure.
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In an October 15, 2011 interview with colleague Bruce Ganem, Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, shares insights into the factors that drew him into the world of chemistry and later into chemical ecology, a field he co-founded with the late professor Tom Eisner of Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
Meinwald reflects upon some highlights of his own career, how he was mentored, and shares perspectives on the evolution of chemical biology.